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The history of the Leica camera


The first Leica camera, unveiled in 1925, revolutionised photography. Ruairidh Pritchard celebrates the past, present and future of one of Germany’s leading technological innovators

Ruairidh Pritchard ,

History and technology aren’t normally concepts that go together. Yet German company Leica combines a long tradition of excellence with the latest 21st-century innovations – and has been a pioneer of photography for a century. Back in 1913, optical engineer Oskar Barnack revolutionised the world of photography when he developed the prototype that would become the first ever mass-market 35mm camera. Today, 100 years later, the original Leica’s successors are heralded as the epitome of stylish photographic equipment.

Heavy weight
The first Leica camera was born out of necessity. The need for a practical, lightweight camera was prevalent across Europe during the early 20th century, and in 1925 photographers throughout Germany rejoiced as the Leica A was unveiled at the Leipzig spring trade fair – becoming an immediate success. Cumbersome, heavy equipment was no longer essential, especially after the company went on to develop its revolutionary interchangeable lens mount.

Crafted to perfection
‘Leica products are the result of cutting-edge technology, German craftsmanship and factory-based manufacturing principles that concentrate on even the tiniest details,’ says CEO Alfred Schopf. ‘The first rangefinder cameras and lenses in the 1920s and 1930s laid the foundation of the brand’s legendary status, which is alive and kicking today. A Leica is always a unique, handmade product characterised by precision and ultimate attention to quality. This is what our customers have appreciated since we started nearly a hundred years ago.’

Snap happy
The creation of a personal, portable camera wasn’t only a hit with the professional photography community – its creation opened up a previously unthinkable world of documentation for the masses, allowing everyone the possibility of capturing a moment in time. It was the prospect of being able to document the world around that caught the imaginations of many of Leica’s increasingly enthralled following. With this new, small-format camera, photojournalism became a new mass medium – allowing photographers the world over to tell stories truthfully and dynamically.

By the end of the 20th century Leica cameras were being used by prolific photographers, including influential French photojournalist Henri Cartier-Bresson, to produce images that would be seen by millions across the globe and influence generations of photographers who followed.

Today, Leica cameras are not only practical, but also fashionable. The company’s X2 and À La Carte ranges are fully customisable; options include grips in a variety of leathers and finishes in precious metals such as gold, silver and platinum, making these cameras as covetable – and as much of an investment – as  a statement handbag or suit.

Designer collaborations
Leica’s affiliation with fashion is something the brand fully embraces. Special-edition luxury cameras produced in collaboration with designers such as Paul Smith and Hermès illustrate the company’s understanding of trends and the changing tides of fashion – without any compromise on quality. ‘The most fashionable product is only as good as its functionality and quality,’ Schopf observes. ‘The feat is to create a product which is both valuable and timeless. Style might change. The requirements of technology remain.’

Tech innovation
And those requirements are more than met by Leica cameras, which haven’t only evolved in the style stakes. Their functionality and use of innovative, high-quality lenses ensure that their optical performance is second to none. ‘Our aim is to enable photographers to take the best picture in any conceivable situation. So, design follows the demands of technology,’ says Schopf. ‘Regarding Leica products, there never was a contradiction between a fashionable camera and substance. We have always combined the best available technology with high-quality materials and kept the design simple and pure. This makes up the charm and the value of a Leica.’

The brand’s engineers are constantly investing time and effort into perfecting optical solutions, resulting in photographs with an unrivalled richness of tone, contrast and resolution – and ensuring that photographers are given the freedom to focus on what is really essential: their subjects.

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